Thankfully for Texas, the season is a long one.
The Longhorns, 2-5 through their first seven games, are off to their worst start in nearly 70 years, when World War II was near its end and gasoline cost just 21 cents per gallon.
Texas has lost five consecutive contests for the first time in more than a decade and was swept last weekend by Stanford, a team the Longhorns have scheduled a series with every season since 1998, for the first time in school history. The 13 runs Texas surrendered in the fourth inning of Sunday’s 15-1 loss, the most lopsided affair in the Longhorns’ 56 meetings with the Cardinal, is more runs than they allowed in any game during the last two seasons.
Believe it or not, Texas has started this year somewhat similarly to the way it began last season, which ended in a trip to the College World Series. Like in 2011, the Longhorns won all but one game against an ACC opponent (Duke) in their season-opening series and lost their first weekday game. The only difference is that instead of facing a mediocre opponent like the Hawaii team Texas squared off against in its second weekend series a year ago, the Longhorns ran into a stacked Stanford squad ranked No. 2 in the country.
For the Longhorns to bounce back, they have to play better defense. They made two errors in each of their first four losses after committing multiple errors just six times in 53 regular season contests last year.
Texas, who has been error-free in its two victories this season, also had defensive struggles at the beginning of the 2011 campaign. In their first 18 games, the Longhorns made at least one error in 14 of them, including a five-error showing against (guess who?) Stanford. But if last season — when the Longhorns had streaks of seven and 11 games without an error — is any indication, they’ll make the necessary defensive adjustments.
Dropping three in a row to Stanford is not the end of the world. Texas became the second team ranked among the top 20 in the nation to get swept by the Cardinal this year as they began their season by winning three games against then-No. 10 Vanderbilt. Stanford starting pitcher Mark Appel, who blanked Texas through the first seven innings of Friday’s game, is arguably the country’s best college baseball player and the Cardinal could be the country’s best team.
Not having Sam Stafford hurts. But sophomore hurler Nathan Thornhill, who has been thrust into the Friday starter spot, can grow into the role of reliable ace. Thornhill would have had a respectable outing last week had he been backed up by a decent defensive performance as half of the six runs he allowed were unearned. The Longhorns also still have one of the nation’s top closers in sophomore Corey Knebel.
The Texas hitters, who batted .143 in the series against Stanford, also have to do their part. Only sophomore right fielder Mark Payton has a batting average above .250 after the Longhorns featured six players who boasted a batting average better than .250 in 2011. Unlike last year’s Texas team, this year’s version won’t post the nation’s second-best ERA so it will need more run support than it did last season and more than it got against Stanford.
Just because the Longhorns are off to their worst start in nearly 70 years doesn’t mean they’ll have their worst season in almost seven decades. Texas has room to improve and it will.
Printed on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 as: Expect Longhorns to improve as season progresses despite subpar start